AH: We were established in 1975 as the International Language Institute in Cairo and we’ve been an affiliate of International House for around 25-30 years. We’re one of the oldest IH schools. We were established as an English school, but then we moved into the Arabic market in the late 1980s and that’s where it’s really taken off for us.
The PIE: What was business like before the Arab Spring?
“We had virtually all the study abroad contracts before the revolution”
AH: We had virtually all the study abroad contracts before the revolution. We had all the UK universities that were doing Arabic – well-established universities such as Edinburgh, Cambridge, SOAS, Manchester, Exeter… Most of them do a BA in Arabic or Middle Eastern Studies. That’s a four-year degree programme and for some of them it’s compulsory that students go abroad for a whole year.
What’s then been an added value for us is that we have our own student residence and actually because of our location, which is very historical, it’s a great place to learn Arabic.
We have some of the best tutors, we present our staff to be of a very high standard.
The PIE: How did things change when the revolution happened?
AH: When the revolution happened we went from having 300 students to four overnight. This was in 2011.
We recovered well but in 2011 we went for about two, three months before things started picking up. At the time it was more of a positive Arab Spring, you know, governments being changed and people were focussing on that and our student numbers were beginning to increase – but then it turned out to be a bit of a farce, to be honest.
A lot of people had different political viewpoints and a lot of tensions started to happen. There was this ‘Islamisation Movement’ in Egypt, and then we had the Muslim Brotherhood basically take over, so the moment that happened a lot of European embassies and administrations decided to put Cairo in Amber or Red. No students. We actually nearly went bankrupt.
We actually have two identities: we have a children’s school in another location and we have IH, and it was the children’s school that was keeping IH alive, because that’s 1,500 kids, from primary right up to sixth form.
“We have a children’s school in another location, and it was the children’s school that was keeping IH alive”
The PIE: So you serve domestic students as well?
AH: No, that’s private. It’s targeted at the elite class, so they go through the British system, 90% of the teachers there are British.
The PIE: What happened after the Muslim Brotherhood takeover?
AH: Things did start to move. When I was brought in we were actually in negative numbers. We had a lot of debt, student numbers were very low, we had no study abroad contracts. We’ve now gone on a robust business development campaign.
The PIE: When did your growth strategy kick in?
AH: A year ago. So el-Sisi’s new government had only just been in power for two, three months, so it was more positive, we moved more towards… I’m not going to say democratic… however, the balance between autocratic and democratic was leaning I think at the time in Egypt, with some military to standardise things out, so it actually improved things.
I started going off and presenting to universities in the UK: Edinburgh, I went to Scandinavia, Westminster, Durham… out of all the universities I went to I must have converted about 60%. We’re not at the occupancy that we were pre-2011. However, we’re at about 50% of the occupancy that we were, rather than 15%!
We had also had a decline in our student residence, where on average we were selling three rooms. We’re now fully booked up until January 2016, all 26 rooms.
“We’re not at the occupancy that we were pre-2011. However, we’re at about 50% of the occupancy that we were, rather than 15%!”
The PIE: What changes have you made?
AH: We’ve refocused our market, we’ve presented to university academics. A lot of the concerns were security concerns. I think what’s reassuring for them is that we are a British organisation. Our foundations and culture are very British. We take the security of our students as a high priority so we always have contingency plans if things were to happen. We request that students register with their foreign embassies in case there is an evacuation, their embassy will get them out. So we have strong relationships with those universities coming back and this September is the first time in about three years that we’ve received undergraduates from universities.
And now we are the sole provider for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in teaching Arabic. We have now increased our private hours from 250 to 820. My target is to close the year at 1,000 private hours.
The PIE: What’s your strategy moving forward?
AH: We have a robust strategy now of increasing our embassy threshold. We have the Australian Embassy with us, the New Zealand Embassy, Singapore, who are going to join us this month.
We’ve also been expanding into multinational companies where, for example, expat staff may require Arabic. Next year, by the middle of quarter two, I would expect us to be on 1,500 private hours. It’s a strain on our teaching resource but we do have the facility to outsource.
So that’s what we’ve been doing over the last year. We have now established relationships with new universities that we didn’t have in the UK for a potential study abroad contract for 2016-2017, so there’s potential new markets there. We’ve actually brought the business back to break even and I think this month will be the first month that we’re in profit.
The PIE: Congratulations! Any plans to increase your ELT offering?
AH: Thank you very much! And we came to StudyWorld this year – it’s the first time we’ve been to an agent fair in about three years. So we have a big strategy moving forwards.
“It’s been a tough ride. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there”
We have diversified into the English market, where we offer General English courses to local Egyptians. We start off at pre-elementary and we work our way up to upper-intermediate and in July we signed a contract with the British Council so we now are an Aptis test centre. Aptis basically tests English aptitude, it’s a smaller version of IELTS. There is no preparation course at the moment for it. Individuals come in, they get tested on the four areas of English. From those exams we can convert onto our English courses. The British Council are also opening up new doors for us where their own staff may require Arabic as well, so it’s a win-win situation.
So you know, it’s been a tough ride. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there.
The PIE: Where do most of you students come from?
AH: Scandinavia and the UK. We have the Universities of Gothenburg and Oslo, and Stockholm are sending us students individually but we hopefully will form a study abroad contract with them next year… and Bergen in Norway, they’re another university that we’re in discussions with.
The PIE: Although the political turmoil over the last few years has damaged business, do you find it’s also increasing interest in the region from overseas?
AH: I think that the efforts that our President el-Sisi has been making, especially when it comes to foreign direct investment, in setting up the Economic and Development Conference and visiting different countries and different heads of state, has been a positive move for Egypt. They’ve put in a lot of money to re-promote tourism in Egypt. He’s making strong efforts now to bring foreign direct investment back.
“I think the Brits are more flexible in coming back in comparison to other nations. We’ve had our own issues so I think Brits are kind of tough when it comes to that”
We’ve had a lot of petroleum and gas investment, and it’s the UK who have the biggest foreign direct investment coming into Egypt over the next ten years, so it’s looking positive from that front.
I think the Brits are more flexible in coming back in comparison to other nations that are quite sensitive because we’ve been used to having issues with terrorism and stuff like that, especially in the past. We’ve had our own issues so I think Brits are kind of tough when it comes to that, they don’t have a fear factor of going into certain countries.